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Human and Ecological Communities of Inner Mongolia, China: A System in Stress

Text and Photos
by Bruce G. Marcot


There is a world of immense grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands, that for millennia has supported a hearty people inured to its winter ice, summer heat, and isolation.  This is the world of Inner Mongolia.
A part of the People's Republic of China, the natural world of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region or Nei Mongol on the Chinese maps, has been suffering immense degradation in recent decades.  Here is a brief summary of the relation between the people and their natural environment -- in particular, the influence of human activities on the environment; how recent environmental degradation is causing social, economic, and ecological problems; and some potential solutions, yet to be realized.

In recent times, much of the grazing land of Inner Mongolia -- once fertile with perennial grasses, woodlands, and wetlands – has been greatly overgrazed and overharvested.

What remains today, in many locations, are extremely desertified conditions -- human-caused deserts.  The solution to restoring the land, however, is not just one of stabilizing the soil and bringing back native plants. 

Also to be considered in any solution are the historic and current conditions of human cultures, land use traditions, and natural and human-caused environmental changes.  The ramifications of desertifying portions of Inner Mongolia has touched all of these elements.  

In 2002 I traveled to Inner Mongolia and principally to one of its most affected areas, Chifeng League (District), and studied the environment problems and possible solutions.

What Are the Major Problems?

1.  What is the current problem of desertification in Inner Mongolia and Chifeng City?

An increasingly scarce species of pine (Pinus tabulaeformis) is being threatened by massive sand dunes that engulf entire mountain peaks.




2.  How are people and wildlife being affected by desertification?

What was once lush native grassland is now shifting sand.

Barely visible among these massive sand dunes created from desertification is an abandoned homestead in the center of this picture.



3.  What interest does the government of PRC have in rectifying this problem?

This tourism center is under attack from massive sand dunes created by desertification and overgrazing.


4.  What is the recent history of land use and wildlife habitats in Inner Mongolia?

A local Mongolian herder by his traditional yurt hut made of dense wool and hide.


Permanent Mongol settlement on a forest edge.  The herders will graze nearby grasslands year-round instead of seasonally when the herders used to be nomadic.

5.  What is the ancient history of land use and wildlife habitats in Inner Mongolia?


Ancient petroglyphs of wild horses, found on a rocky outcrop in the region.  These and petroglyphs of other animals tell the story of habitats lost.





Petroglyph of deer.  Few deer now inhabit the land there.

The seldom-seen Great Wall of the Jin Dynasty, built 700-800 years ago to keep out Mongol invaders.  Soldiers occupied the towers along the wall, which were spaced at twice the distance an arrow could be accurately shot.

6.  What is currently being done to reduce the spread of, and restore, desertified land there?

Deciduous hardwood trees planted in a tight grid in an attempt to help stabilize soil and intercept the wind to reduce wind erosion.


7.  What portions of Inner Mongolia still have viable wetland and grasslands for use by wildlife and for grazing?  What are they like?

The natural gem of Dalai Nur Lake, with native (frozen) wetlands and grasslands.


8.  What lessons can be learned from these areas for the future of ensuring long-term, sustainable use, and restoration of native ecosystems, of the region?

A frozen homestead of Mongolians in the middle of Inner Mongolia.


9.  What is the answer?

Clearly, the existing natural reserves of the region and adjacent areas have much to teach.

Elements of a comprehensive solution also should include the following (as derived from the 11/02 workshop):


Workshop held November 2002 to find a solution to the desertification problem in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia.  It was agreed that the answer must span disciplines of ecology, economics, legislation, and education.  Much work remains.


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